Shopkeeper Dispatches: Round Table Books

10 Jun 2020

These are the Shopkeeper Dispatches: a monthly series where local shopkeepers document their daily lives. For the second in our series, Aimée Felone – founder of Round Table Books – documents the lockdown journey of the inclusive children’s bookstore and how the representation of BAME communities has never been more crucial.

Illustration by Erin Aniker

Thursday 12th March

When I open the door to Round Table Books each morning, I get the exact same feeling as I did on the day we first opened. I remember how totally surreal it felt to finally have a space where all children could see themselves in books. During my time working in publishing, I was constantly frustrated at the lack of diversity in children’s books. I was determined to make things different for the next generation of kids. After raising £50,000, Round Table Books was born – a Brixton bookshop dedicated to the representation of diverse characters in children's books.

The store is mostly quiet as I set up with the team. Throughout the day customers and their kids come in waves of busy-ness, so it can get pretty hectic. Today, I noticed that there were fewer people than normal, probably due to Coronavirus worries, but I got to see some of our regulars. There’s one boy who visits every week with his mum. He came in today. He told me that his three favourite places are his house, his school and the shop. Hearing that means the world to me.

Tuesday 16th March

Yesterday, our team of four came to the difficult decision together to close the shop. I always say that I never intended to open a bookstore, but now I’m seriously wondering whether I can live without it. When you work in a team as small as our, you feel like you’re part of a family. So when both of our booksellers told us they didn’t feel comfortable coming into the store due to the virus, that rang alarm bells. I want Round Table Books to be a safe space for children and readers of all ages. When I hear our adult staff don’t feel safe, that worries me.

We’re protected for the time being by our online shop, but I’m beyond frustrated with our government for dragging their heels. I feel that there needs to be more support for small businesses, but if they won’t give us clear guidelines, we’re going to have to make the decision to close. I’m not putting anyone at risk.

Wednesday 1st April

Yesterday, we got word from our warehouses that they were being forced to close, meaning there would be no way to get books to our customers under lockdown. My mind immediately went to the children and families who have been so loyal to us. When we put out a tweet to let everyone know the news, we were inundated with support and kind words. One woman even messaged me to ask which crowd-funder page she needed to go to. We got a video from the little boy who comes in after school to tell us how much he misses the shop. The past month has been a rollercoaster, but it’s reassuring to know that we haven’t been forgotten by our community.

Friday 29th May

It’s been a week since the Black Lives Matter protests started. I spent the day writing a piece on anti-racism in children's books for The Guardian, and I finished feeling grateful that I could offer some direction. With the shop being based in Brixton, a historical Black Caribbean area, I’ve seen first-hand how powerful it is for a Black child to come into our store and pick up a book with a main character that looks like them.

What is happening in the US has alone shone a light on the systemic inequalities we see in the UK. It’s incredibly tragic, but it means that more and more parents are coming to us for resources to educate and inspire their children during these hard times. Re-opening the shop right now would feel like profiteering for me, and I don’t want to seem like one of the brands using this movement as PR (and we’re still in the midst of a global pandemic). Today has just highlighted for me how important it is that the shop will be a safe space for kids when we re-open again.

Thursday 11th June

I always get emotional when I think about reopening. The team has a group chat where we talk about the customers we miss the most. I’m having a call with them all this afternoon, I feel like we’re finally ready to talk about reopening. We always planned to open our Brixton shop again, but in July, not June 15th like the government is suggesting. I feel like their rush to reopen the economy is going to cause some complications, perhaps even a second wave. And as we know, our community is most at risk from the virus. So, we’re going to continue to make patient and considered decisions.

When we do open, I know we’ll be absolutely inundated – we’ve had so many orders over the weekend even though our online shop is closed. When we re-open, it will be done in a way that keeps our customers and our staff safe. It has been and always will be our number one priority.

All I can say is that I’m looking forward to setting up shop again. I’m looking forward to seeing that little boy and his mum at the end of the day. I’m looking forward to selling the books that I dreamed of reading when I was younger.